Benefits cuts, austerity measures, local authority budgets stretched to the limit, households struggling to make ends meet, social unease bubbling over into demonstrations and strikes in some places.....sound familiar?
The date is August 1926 and a group of protesters are gathered outside the council offices in West Calder to protest against benefits cuts – specifically the withdrawal of the subsistence food allowance paid to destitute mining families during the miners' strike.
At that time, payouts and benefits were still largely based on the “Poor Laws” that had been in place for centuries. The Parish Councils administered funds raised for “poor relief” payments, and although the beginning of the 20th century saw the introduction of many of the social services that developed into the modern welfare state, means testing still tended to be inconsistent and you had to be destitute before you would be eligible for any help.
You had to be destitute before you would be eligible for any help.
In the local mining industries – both coal and shale - times were very tough in the years following the First World War, and the early 1920s also saw competition from cheap coal and oil overseas putting pressure on Scottish-produced coal and shale-oil. This pressure was transferred to the workers in the form of reduced pay and this led to unrest and striking.
Some mines closed and competition for jobs was fierce. It was hard to get a job and when you did, pay was very low and working hours long. Quotes from former miners illustrate: “When I left school [in 1926], I waited about a year to get a job” and “These were the times when you'd come up the pit, and there were five or six men standing and waiting and looking for your job.” In 1925 shale miners went on strike to protest against wage reductions, and the following year saw a general strike, initiated by the coal miners, who were protesting against pay cuts and increased working hours. This had a knock-on effect on the shale industry too as the shale industry depended on supplies of coal for heating the retorts. So the context was one of hardship and depression.
The Scottish Board of Health told the Parish Councils of West and Mid Lothian that if a man “voluntarily abstained from work” (i.e. went on strike) he was not eligible to receive poor relief funds, but if his wife and children became destitute they would normally be eligible for relief under the Poor Act of 1845. So mining families in the West Calder had been receiving food vouchers to keep them from starvation during the strikes of 1925 and 1926. However West Calder Parish Council had paid out so much in relief to striking miners that it was heavily in deficit and decided, in August 1926 after reviewing its finances, to withdraw even this subsistence allowance in order to save money and try and balance its books.
The withdrawal of this relief in 1926 meant that families faced starvation.
A certain Mrs Sarah Moore of Addiewell, who had previously petitioned the Council for an increase in relief payments in 1925, now arranged for a group of local women to gather in front of the Council offices for a peaceful protest. They were joined by a large crowd asking for relief, which was refused. There was shouting and stones thrown, and police were called to break up the protest with a baton charge.
The outcome was that the Parish Council was told by the Board of Health that they must address the destitution in the locality, either by paying relief to the striking miners or by paying out of the poor funds on the basis that the families were medically certified to be destitute and “physically requiring relief”. It didn't address the bigger picture and eventually the miners were forced back to work and obliged to accept less pay and longer working hours.
Mrs Moore, or “Ma Moore” as she affectionately became known locally, went on to become a community leader and was one of the first female councillors, a pioneer of the labour party who worked tirelessly for social justice and for better working and housing conditions, and especially better conditions for children. Moorelands, in Loganlea, is named after her.
The question as to how society handles welfare is as relevant today as it has ever been.
You can read more details on the West Calder Protest in a booklet produced by the West Lothian Local History Library entitled “Ma Moore and the West Calder protest.” It contains much more detailed information on conditions for local families, the protest itself and its repercussions. Visit www.addiewellheritage.org.uk for more information on Ma Moore.
First published in Konect February 2013
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer